The best warm-up to baseball season?Major-league exhibition games in February and March. A father and his sons head to Phoenix, where the Cactus League gets in the swing of things.
The wife was out of the picture. Not to sound Stone Age, but the news that the woman of the house wouldn’t be able to join me and the boys for a school-break getaway opened up vacation options that our family had never considered. Gabriel, 16, Charlie, 12, and I could hit steak houses without having to worry about whether they’d also have salmon on the menu. We could drive three states out of our way before stopping to ask for directions. Better yet, we could be the boys of spring.
For baseball fans, the mid-February start of spring training is practically a national holiday. Who needs groundhogs and robins to tell you that winter is almost over when you’ve got “Pitchers and Catchers”—the day the first players report to camp?Throughout March, the 30 MLB teams play exhibition games that draw nearly 2 million fans to intimate fields in Florida, home to the Grapefruit League, and Arizona, the Cactus League turf. Getting in on the action had been a boyhood fantasy of mine, and now—with no encouragement from me (I swear!)—it was at the top of my own sons’ wish lists. But by the time we started trying to plan a trip, the month was well under way. Could we still make all the arrangements and stick to a ballpark travel budget of $2,000?
Our first impulse was to head to Florida and follow the New York Mets, the boys’ hometown team of choice. But we quickly discovered that three airfares to Florida and three hotel nights anywhere near the Mets camp in Port St. Lucie would push costs north of our allowance even before we bought our first hot dog. So we began investigating the more distant, yet surprisingly more affordable, Cactus League scene.
Unlike in Florida—where training camps run down the Atlantic Coast, up the Gulf Coast, and 160 miles across a non-swampy inland stretch— in Arizona, seven of the nine ballparks are conveniently close to one another, in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Gabriel, our resident travel agent, scored a $149-a-night reservation at a La Quinta Inn near the airport that met all my criteria: complimentary breakfast, free Wi-Fi, swimming pool. As for tickets, which generally run from $5 to $25, a quick Internet search showed that several games, some involving the Cubs (lovable losers), some the Giants (not-so-lovable Barry Bonds), had already sold out. We could have gone through a broker or even sought out a scalper near a stadium—the practice is legal in Arizona—but an absence of allegiances liberated us. Rather than follow any one team, we would sample ballparks, players, and nachos grandes. Flying out of New York on a chilly Saturday morning, we had our starting lineup: four days, five ballparks, seven teams. Let’s go...umm...Padres!
We drove straight from Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport to the northwest suburb of Surprise, the current frontier of the city’s retirement community. The combination of condo complexes and roadside cacti seemed an unlikely setting for what awaited: the baseball version of total immersion. The grass was achingly green, the sky blazingly blue, the ball a white that any dental hygienist might envy. The ballpark has a minor league–size capacity of 10,500, affording close-enough-to-see-the-players-spit seating, plus a free carousel for kids and a beer pavilion for parents. A concourse that encircles the field allowed for a scenic stroll to our seats; later in the game we could stretch our legs without missing a pitch. The chances of catching—or at least chasing—a foul ball are much greater than in a cavernous major league stadium, as Gabriel learned when he and another fan elbowed each other for the same long drive. (Gabriel also picked up a valuable lesson: Don’t leave your glove in the car.) And then came the announcement over the loudspeaker: “Now batting, Sammy Sosa.”
Every season has its soap operas, and this year one of them was the comeback attempt of the former Cubs slugger whose home-run production and physique in recent years had shrunk to the same extent that the steroids scandal had expanded. Now he was batting for the Texas Rangers, with the bases loaded and his career on the line. We weren’t exactly witnesses to history; he grounded to short. But we could have been, and that was bonus enough for our first game.
The following day we made the snappy 115-mile drive south to Tucson (speed limit: 75 mph) to check out one of the two non-Phoenix ballparks in the area. We chose Tucson Electric Park over nearby Hi Corbett Field because it came with views of the Santa Catalina Mountains, one of four ranges that ring the city. It also came with a UV index of 10; fortunately, we had a lifetime supply of water bottles and sunscreen. The Chicago White Sox, playing host to the Rangers (no Sosa this time—veterans of a certain stature often skip bus trips), wound up losing 10 to 2. Not that the final tally matters all that much; these exhibition games don’t count in the standings. Gabriel and Charlie, on the other hand, definitely scored when I silenced my inner “What would Mom do?” voice and lifted sweets restrictions for the duration. Cotton candy?Sure! You want a Dr. Wells with that?(It’s a regional variant on Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb. Apparently the ability to confect a dark, fruity carbonated beverage requires a medical degree or a Y chromosome.)
On day three, we took advantage of one of the few spring-training night games and planned a doubleheader. Our afternoon was spent at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, home field not only to the Oakland Athletics but former Mets superstar Mike Piazza. We arrived an hour early so Gabriel could try to get Piazza’s autograph; he failed, but was able to see his hero bang a double off the right-field wall in the bottom of the first to drive in the first run of the game. Later, under the lights in suburban Peoria Stadium, the spring base of the San Diego Padres, we couldn’t find the supposedly famous deep-fried Twinkies we’d read about at cactusleague.com. Still, we settled ourselves on the lawn beyond right field, luxuriated in the sensation of grass blades on bare elbows, and cheered when a member of Gabriel’s online fantasy team—the Royals’ Mark Teahen—drove his third home run of the spring into the cool night air.
For our final baseball outing, we arrived at Tempe Diablo Stadium two hours before game time to partake in one of the great spring rituals: standing in the parking lot beyond the warm-up field and scurrying after balls hit over the fence. As the players walked to the stadium, Gabriel nabbed an autograph from star pitcher Kelvim Escobar. Once inside, we surrendered to a heavenly breeze and diabolically decadent garlic fries, while the White Sox surrendered to a thrilling eight-runs-in-one-inning assault by the Angels. Still, I understood what Charlie meant when he announced, “I never thought I would say this, but I’m a little baseballed out.”
His timing was perfect. The next morning, we drove north of Phoenix, out of the Valley of the Sun, through the snow-brushed mountains of Flagstaff, and across an endless plateau where the only radio station we could find was NPR—Native Public Radio. In four hours, we reached the lip of the Grand Canyon, formed by nature approximately 6 million years ago, or about the last time the Cubs won the World Series.
Richard Panek is the author of The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud, and the Search for Hidden Universes. His next book is Let There Be Dark: At the Dawn of the Next Universe.
Spring-training schedules and tickets
Five winning traditions particular to spring training:
- Players often run wind sprints along the warning track, even while the game is in progress.
- Players’ kids hang out in the bullpen.
- Roster players take part for only a couple of innings at the start of spring training, then gradually add innings over the course of the two months.
- You can tell the minor-leaguers who aren’t on the major-league roster—they’re the ones wearing jerseys with numbers in the high two digits.
- Players stop to sign autographs as they trot off the field, sometimes in the middle of a game.
- Use more sunscreen than you think you’ll need. Most games take place in the bright of day.
- Manage your water wisely. Area ballparks typically allow you to enter with a sealed one-liter bottle. You can also ask for a courtesy cup at the concession stand. Either way, you can refill at the water fountain throughout the game—and save yourself an outrageous $3 for a half-liter bottle.
- Inquire about seats in the shade. Some ballparks have a couple of covered rows in the grandstands.
- Shop for night games. There aren’t many, but enough to keep you cool.
- Leave room in the schedule for the hotel pool!